MADISON, Wis. — Democrats on the run in Wisconsin avoided state troopers Friday and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks, potentially paralyzing the state government in a standoff with majority Republicans over union rights for public employees.
The dramatic flight from the state stalled a proposal that seeks to ease Wisconsin's budget woes by cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of many government workers. Democrats who stayed in Madison scored their own victory, forcing the state Assembly to adjourn until at least Tuesday without taking a vote.
(Scroll down for the latest updates from Wisconsin)
The party's two-front battle against the legislation is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall's GOP wave, and it's taken hold even as the anti-union agenda pushed by new GOP Gov. Scott Walker spreads to other states.
But the dramatic strategy that has clogged the Capitol with thousands of protesters clashes with one essential truth: Republicans told everyone months ago that unions would be one of their targets, and the GOP now has more than enough votes to pass its plans once the Legislature can convene.
"This is not a win," said Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chairman of the budget committee that has already endorsed the plan, of the adjournment. "This is just a reality we're living with. ... The bill's still moving forward."
The 14 Senate Democrats left the state Thursday, delaying action in that chamber on the sweeping bill. Among them was Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who said Friday the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would prefer to end the stalemate sooner.
"That really, truly is up to the governor," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at a downtown Chicago hotel. "It's his responsibility to bring the state together. The state is not unified. It is totally torn part."
Meanwhile, the protests at the state Capitol entered a fourth day and continued to grow – to an estimated 40,000 people, the largest crowd yet. Many schools were closed again after teachers called in sick, including the state's largest district, in Milwaukee.
The protests are so large that Capitol workers cannot safely move through the halls, with GOP Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald calling the situation "a powder keg."
The throngs of protesters – including teachers, prison guards and many students – have been largely peaceful. Police reported just nine citations for minor offenses as of Friday. But tensions were expected to rise Saturday, when conservative tea party groups planned their own rallies.
"You can't ignore this sustained and inspirational outpouring of people who are demanding changes," said Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca, who called the Assembly's decision to adjourn for the holiday weekend a huge victory that will increase pressure on Republicans to change course.
But neither Walker or the Republicans who took control of both the state Senate and Assembly in November appear ready to make any concessions. Walker called on Senate Democrats to "come home" and rebuffed a request to sit down with them to seek a compromise.
The leader of the state's largest public employee said workers were prepared to discuss financial concessions but not to give up bargaining rights. Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said protests would continue until Walker agrees to negotiate.
Republicans aborted an attempt late Friday afternoon to hold a final vote on the bill without Democrats, who had been in a closed caucus meeting. Democrats sprinted into the chamber yelling to stop the vote, and the GOP leadership retreated.
Protester Carrie Dainty said the delay made her hopeful. "They'll be back on Tuesday, and we'll be here until Tuesday," she said.
It's not clear when the Senate Democrats will join them. Erpenbach said the decision to flee happened on the spur of the moment as Democrats gathered Thursday morning near the Capitol for a regular strategy meeting.
An hour later, he threw a toothbrush, razor and some clothes into a duffel bag and a backpack and jumped into a car, heading for a prearranged meeting at a hotel in Rockford, Ill., just south of the Wisconsin border.
The lawmakers were concerned that police could have detained them, even though the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits the arrest of state lawmakers while the Legislature is in session, except in cases of felonies, breaches of the peace or treason.
From Rockford, the legislators headed in different directions, most of them traveling to the Chicago area or to other parts of northern Illinois, Erpenbach said. Since leaving Wisconsin, he said he had not spoken to any of his Republican counterparts.
The Wisconsin walkout is similar to a 2003 confrontation in Texas, where Democrats were outnumbered by Republicans in a battle over congressional redistricting. The group got on a bus and fled for the Oklahoma border.
Former Texas state Rep. Jim Dunnam said the group had an "end game" – they had to stay away for one week to kill the bill by running it up against a legislative deadline. But they also knew their efforts were only temporary because Republican Gov. Rick Perry would call them into special session all summer until a bill passed, which he did.
"It was the toughest thing I've ever done politically," said Texas state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "It was not something we wanted to do. It was the last thing we could do to protect minority voting rights."
In a sign that the commotion might be causing other problems for the governor, Walker pushed back the release of his two-year budget plan by one week, to March 1.
The governor insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers – including higher health insurance and pension contributions – are necessary to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs.
Eliminating their collective bargaining rights, except over wage increases not greater than the Consumer Price Index, is necessary in order to give the state and local governments and schools flexibility to deal with upcoming cuts in state aid, Walker said.
Those arguments don't wash with Democrats who say the fight is really about political power and quashing the unions, whose members are longtime supporters of Democrats.
Erpenbach (URP'-ehn-bahk) accused Walker of trying to rush the legislation, which was publicly unveiled only a week ago.
"I'm not calling him a dictator. But this is dictatorial almost," Erpenbach said. "I don't think I've ever seen such a draconian piece of legislation come down from any governor, Democrat or Republican."
Republicans had warned since last year's campaign that they would seek major concessions from unions. But for lawmakers in the minority, "The only other option we had to slow things down was to leave," Erpenbach said.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane called the walkout in Madison the boldest action Democrats have taken since midterm elections swept Republican to power in statehouses across the country.
Walker "has been so strident that the way he's engaged ... has effectively given the Democrats the high ground in terms of how they're responding," Lehane said.
"What Wisconsin is going through isn't all that different from other states," he added. "But the way it's being handled is."
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond, Dinesh Ramde and Jason Smathers in Madison; Michael Tarm in Chicago; Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas; and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this story.
03/07/2011 5:01 PM EST
The Atlantic reports that at one town hall meeting in Wisconsin, one GOP state senator faced "loud opposition" to a proposed compromise.
03/04/2011 1:04 AM EST
Judge Orders Protesters Out Of Capitol
About 50 pro-union protesters peacefully left the state Capitol late Thursday after a judge ruled they could no longer spend the night to show their opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers.
The judge also ruled the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building.
03/03/2011 5:00 PM EST
Layoff Notices To Come Friday
AP reports that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state employees Friday if his union bill doesn't pass by then:
Walker also said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is negotiating with Democrats who stymied passage of the bill by leaving the state for changes to the proposal that would get them to return. Walker said he won't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.
"I can't take any of that off the table," he said.
03/03/2011 11:16 AM EST
New Research Numbers
HuffPost's Mark Blumenthal writes:
A new survey released this morning by the Pew Research Center is the first to provide a clear before-and-after snapshot of national attitudes toward labor unions in the wake of the ongoing protests and budget conflict in Wisconsin:
The public’s overall views of labor unions have changed little through the lengthy stalemate between Wisconsin’s governor and the state’s public employee unions over collective bargaining rights. About half (47%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions compared with 39% who have an unfavorable opinion. In early February, 45% expressed a favorable opinion of unions and 41% said they had an unfavorable view. However, liberal Democrats and people in union households are more likely to say they have a very favorable opinion of labor unions than they were just weeks ago.
See the Pew Research report for their complete analysis and full results by party, ideology and union membership subgroups. The Pew Center had also conducted an in-depth survey on unions in early February, just before Walker released the budget bill that sparked the protests.
03/02/2011 6:42 PM EST
Man Cited For Unplugging Fox Equipment
The City of Madison has filed a police report charging a 23-year-old man for "disorderly conduct" after he unplugged extension cords from a Fox News vehicle. Read the full report here.
03/02/2011 6:00 PM EST
West Virginia Approves Pay Hikes For Public Workers
Adding another state into the debate on public workers, West Virginia's Herald-Dispatch reports:
West Virginia's public employees would reap pay raises averaging 2 percent this year, with a second year of increases promised to teachers and school workers, under a proposal advanced Wednesday to the state Senate by the House.
But the 78-22 vote reflected GOP-led concerns that increasing state spending threatens a stable budgetary picture that has so far allowed West Virginia to avoid deficits and the painful choices they can force. Foes also contrasted the pay hikes with the state's continuing unemployment woes.
Full story here.
03/02/2011 5:44 PM EST
Update: Ohio Bill Would Jail Striking Librarians
More details have surfaced on Ohio's controversial SB 5, which just passed the state senate.
Senate Bill 5 would prohibit public-employee unions representing teachers, librarians, toll collectors and others from bargaining over health benefits, pensions and working conditions. Under the bill, unions could still negotiate wages, but striking would be prohibited for all public workers, taking away a major bargaining chip. Workers could face a fine of up to $1,000, or 30 days in jail, if they go on strike.
A Twitter campaign, #standupOH, has already mounted. As user @escapetochengdu tweeted, "The bill that just passed Ohio Senate allows the government to jail striking librarians for 30 days. Despicable."
Read the whole Wall Street Journal story here.
03/02/2011 5:25 PM EST
Ohio Senate Passes Controversial Anti-Union Bill
The bill put forth by an Ohio panel earlier today has passed the state senate, TPM reports:
The Ohio State Senate just passed the controversial SB 5, aimed a limiting unionized state employees' ability to collectively bargain or go on strike.
In an indication of how divisive the legislation is in the Buckeye State, the final vote in the Senate was 17-16.
Gov. John Kasich (R) has endorsed the measure and is expected to sign it when it reaches his desk.
Full story here.
03/02/2011 5:18 PM EST
'Runaway Senator' Tourism Campaign Goes Viral
A tourism campaign leveraging the Wisconsin senators who fled to Rockford, Illinois has gone viral. The push, "Hide Away In Rockford," hawks "collectively bargained" rates to some of the town's best tourist attractions.
“Unlike Wisconsin’s state senators, this video isn’t low key; it’s been a real runaway hit," said Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB) President/CEO John Groh of the campaign's success.
Watch the promotional video here.
03/02/2011 4:48 PM EST
Polls: Polarized Wisconsin Leans Toward Unions
HuffPost's resident pollster Mark Blumenthal reports:
WASHINGTON -- A automated telephone poll conducted this week in Wisconsin by the Democratic-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) largely confirms other recent polls showing public support for collective bargaining rights for unions and, by a narrow margin, more opposition than support for the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker (R). Some caution is in order, however, about several vote preference questions included in the same survey.
Despite the ongoing coverage and national interest in the controversy, all of the opinion surveys taken within Wisconsin so far have had sponsors with partisan ties, and each has taken a different approach to the questions asked. Where their questions have been similar, however, we can begin to compare the results.
Read more here.